Meatless in Steer City
According to Japanese tradition, the shadowy man in the moon is actually a rabbit, and it's using its powerful hind legs to pound mochi, a glutinous Japanese sweet-rice cake eaten as a snack and used in soups and desserts.
Apparently, the lunar hare lore stems from a play on words: The Japanese word for "full moon" is mochizuki, very close to mochitsuki or "making mochi." Mochi traditionally is produced by pounding steamed sticky rice into a soft, warm mass with a wooden pallet. The rice is then rolled into balls or packed into sheets. In its packaged-sheet form - usually found near the tofu in grocery stores that cater to vegetarians - mochi is as hard as a brick and looks as appealing as wallboard, but with baking it becomes a chewy, gooey treat.
I use the word treat because, nutritionally speaking, there's not much you can say for mochi except that it's high in carbohydrates. That might be why mochi is thought to improve stamina: fad diets aside, carbs are the building blocks of energy. That said, vegetarians and vegans will likely love mochi more for what it doesn't have: It's wheat-, gluten-, and dairy-free. Hell, plain mochi is almost flavor-free.
But that's why one eats it - because, like rice, it sops up other flavors so well.
The dining companion and I tried Grainaissance's sesame-garlic flavored brown-rice mochi. Unadorned, it has a subtle nutty flavor, but not enough salt or garlic to be considered tasty. I baked the mochi until it was just puffy, dipped it in soy sauce, and then popped it back in the oven until it turned golden brown. Wrapped in a sliver of nori (dried seaweed), it tasted like a chewy rice cracker, the hard, salty skin breaking to gooey warmth on the inside. Word to the wise: Eat mochi hot out of the oven; cold, it's like ingesting rawhide.
The raisin-cinnamon flavor needs no such doctoring; on its own it has a mildly sweet raisin-bread flavor that is comforting on a cool fall evening with a cup of hot tea. For breakfast, we tried stuffing the hot mochi lumps with peanut butter. Peanut butter and raisins are always texturally complementary, but adding the creamy spread to the gooey mochi made the concoction stick to the roofs of our mouths like caulk.
Scanning the internet, a common mochi recipe seems to be zoni, a traditional Japanese New Year's dish, in which mochi balls are floated, much like dumplings, in a stew of seafood and meat. Vegetarians might simulate that experience with a miso-based broth, vegetables, and tofu.
The Japanese also like to create decorations with mochi, stacking up the puffy balls like snowmen and placing them on the ancestral altar. That, in all honesty, is really why I like to eat mochi - watching it inflate into cool shapes in the toaster oven is almost as much fun as Shrinky Dinks. And there is a rabbit in the moon; it's standing on its tail with its great big ears trailing off to the right. •
By Susan Pagani